Last fall, Mann became the Carolyn Plemmons Phillips and Ben R. Phillips Distinguished Professor in Musical Theatre at Western Carolina, where he’s expected to play a key role in the development of the university’s new $30-million-dollar, 122,000-square-foot arts center. Having someone with Mann’s resumé gives both student actors and faculty a chance to learn what goes into professional productions at the highest level.
“You have to come in and inspire people,” he said during a break in the stage set-up last week.
Since mid-January, Mann has been working with students and faculty on “The Music Man,” challenging them to take risks and try out new ideas on stage.
“There are no wrong choices,” he said.
As a graduate of the N.C. School of the Arts in Winston-Salem and a former artistic director of the long-running outdoor drama “The Lost Colony,” Mann is no stranger to North Carolina. When he was called out of the blue by Western Carolina theatre arts associate professor Stephen Ayers about coming to work with the theatre program at Cullowhee, Mann was delighted, but he wasn’t going to move from his home in New York City.
Then came an offer he couldn’t refuse — an opportunity to visit Western Carolina several times a year, teach master classes, and offer video conferencing, giving WCU students a chance to talk with casting directors, actors and agents that Mann knows in the business.
“I’ve never seen anyone work so creatively so quickly,” said Claire Eye, a guest lecturer with WCU’s theatre arts department.
“He will bring unsurpassed, real-world experience that will be invaluable to our theatre students,” said WCU Chancellor John Bardo.
And while some students have been in awe working with a famous actor, the 55-year-old Mann was a little nervous himself, stepping into his new role as a distinguished university professor working with students.
“I was kind of in awe of them,” Mann said. “I was where they were.”
Mann’s career has given him the insight to know that even Broadway has its share of people who are fully committed while others really ought to find another job. You never know who might show up in a production — some with amazing abilities or others just along for the ride.
While directing a production of “1776” about 16 years ago, Mann found himself frustrated trying to position an actor on stage who didn’t seem to be interested in his role. The actor turned out to be none other than American Idol sensation Clay Aiken.
Not all of acting comes down to talent, Mann readily admits.
“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than to be good,” Mann said.
All the same, he wants to be sure actors and those working behind the scenes at Western Carolina will be fully prepared when the time comes to shine.
Mann earned his stripes playing the Rum Tum Tugger in the long-running Broadway hit “Cats.” Other prominent roles have included Inspector Javert in “Les Miserables” and the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” — each show earning him Tony Award nominations. His film credits have included “Critters” and “A Chorus Line.” He’s appeared on TV’s “Law and Order,” picked up an Emmy nomination on “As the World Turns,” and just finished shooting on the dark fantasy series “The Dresden Files” in Toronto.
But the most fun Mann said he’s had “legally or illegally” was getting to play Frank-N-Furter in a revival of “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Mann was doing the production in New York City before 9/11, and the shock of the tragedy brought Broadway to a halt. It felt wrong to be doing theatre at a time like that, Mann said.
“It was like America had been punched in the nose,” Mann said.
But the show had to go on, and two days later, the curtain opened once again.
“The audience just started screaming and cheering,” Mann said. “We were slammed back into our world.”
And that world is what Terrence Mann loves the most.
“It never ceases to amaze me,” he said, eyes wide as a kid at Christmas.
There’s something about musical theater, Mann explains, something larger than life — the kind of magic Shakespeare was able to create in his epic plays. The stakes are huge. The emotions are huge. The action is huge. And, like the saying goes, when you can’t speak of something anymore, you have to sing about it. That power to open people’s hearts, that uplifting energy, is what keeps Mann coming back to theatre year after year, show after show.
In a strange way, Mann is something like Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man” — someone who comes to transform a small town with a dream. Bringing the music, dance and theatre departments together under one identity will be no small task.
“And we’re obviously building it one brick at a time,” Mann said.
But with a Broadway-sized, state-of-the-art theatre and a university willing to invest in high-caliber talent, don’t be surprised to see Western Carolina students making their way to New York City’s bright lights.